Northampton Saints V Gloucester Rugby | Friday 27 November | Franklin's Gardens | 21:40
After a two week break, England's premier club rugby tournament returns on Friday evening when the struggling Northampton Saints take on Gloucester at Franklin Gardens. With both teams desperate to kick-start their domestic campaigns, this match should be an absolute classic.
To Win (80 Mins)
Northampton (-9.5) 9/10
Gloucester (+ 9.5) 9/10
The Saints have made a poor start to their Aviva Premiership campaign. They have only won three of their four domestic matches, and have conceded 61 points at an average 15.5 points per game. While they have a reasonable points for record (73), this is mainly due to their 26 point victory over lowly Newcastle in the second round. The sub-par start sees 'Jimmies Saints' languishing in tenth spot on the table, a solitary point behind this week's opposition.
The Saints are having a lot more joy in Europe than they are domestically. The Northampton-based side have two wins from two games in the European Challenge Cup. They beat the Scarlets in the first week of the tournament and then ran the much fancied Glasgow Warriors rampant the following week. They will need to carry that European form into their domestic campaign if they are to live up to their fans lofty expectations.
Powerful centre Luther Burrell will be a real threat this week, his duel with fellow Englishmen and Gloucester 12, Billy Twelvetress, will be one to savour. Fullback Ben Foden will look to bring some magic to proceedings. The former Scrumhalf has adapted his game since he moved to Northampton in 2008 and is now considered one of the best-attacking fullbacks in the Aviva premiership.
It will be interesting to see who, Saints' mentor, Jim Mallinder opts to go with at scrumhalf. Kahn Fotuali'i was impressive for Samoa during the World Cup but Lee Dickson brings a tempo to the game that Foutuali'i can't match.
Gloucester have given a relatively good accord of themselves domestically. They managed one of the results of the season when they went down by just two points to the all-conquering Saracens in round two of the competition. They followed that up with a two-point victory over the Worcester Warriors in round three. They were then brought back down to earth by Wasps, who beat them by 20 points in round four.
Like Northampton, Gloucester are enjoying a fantastic start to their European campaign. They defeated La Rochelle by 13 points in their opener and then beat Zebre by an identical margin the following week. If they can replicate those displays this weekend, then they may well cause an upset at Franklin's Gardens.
Key to their chances of achieving this will be the forgotten man of Welsh Rugby James Hook. The utility back is likely to don the ten jersey for Gloucester this weekend. The only problem with that, is you're never quite sure what performance Hook is going to put in. On his day, he's an absolute world-beater, however, when it's not, he's so bad that he makes Sias Ebersohn look like an a competent flyhalf. Hook will have Scottish nine, Greig Laidlaw, on his inside. The diminutive Scot was one of the best players at the World Cup and it seems as though he's brought that form back to his club. He's an excellent goal kicker and will punish any indiscretions that Northampton make in their own half.
Whilst the halfback pairing will be pivotal to Gloucester's chances, they won't have a chance to influence the game if their forwards fail to assert themselves at the breakdown. Welsh flanker Ross Moriarty will be the fulcrum in doing just this. The 104 kg flanker has the ability to clear a ruck single handily. Ex-Wellington Hurricane, Jeremy Thrush, will offer a solid lineout option, while former Auckland Blue's prop, John Afoa, will anchor the pack.
Verdict: Northampton (-9.5)
It's a tricky fixture to call, but I think the home side should be able to pass the 9.5 margin in this one, mainly due to the quality of their backline. Back the hosts to emerge victorious by 10 points or more in front of their home faithful.